Rooted in a sense of both racial and economic disparities (he was the only one of four kids in his family to attend college) from his childhood neighborhood, Adam Fletcher brings a mix of both pragmatism and idealism to his current work with youth engagement. With regard particularly to the often under-served populations of young folks in our public schools today, he is a tireless crusader for what he’s termed student voice – “the individual and collective perspective and actions of young people within the context of learning and education.”
Adam and I found time to talk over the phone this summer and, despite a few interruptions for both of us, we managed to chat for nearly 2 hours. Covering topics like youth engagement, the Evergreen State College (we’re both former attendees), and the current school system, I began to better understand the charismatic personality behind such projects as SoundOut and The Freechild Project, to name a few.
I first became aware of Adam through his Olympia connection and his work in alternative education circles. After a little digging I discovered that Adam had graduated from The Evergreen State College in the early 2000s. As a former Greener myself I was naturally curious about how his Evergreen experience had informed his current work. (For my own reflections on this topic, see here.) Adam’s response gave me a greater depth of understanding about the underpinnings of his motivations. But first, some background.
Evergreen offers a class called Prior Learning from Experience (PLE) which gives students an opportunity to earn credit by writing about previous work and learning experiences. Fletcher took to this class like a duck to water and ended up writing something of a manuscript about his former work experiences, beginning at age 13. With 10 years of work experience written he ended up with a 180 page document that he received 160 credits for. After a childhood in situational poverty and an assortment of college attendances under his belt before getting to Evergreen, the PLE experience, “gave me a lot of confidence, and a sense of ability academically. It was so affirming to know that my work experience was worth something, that my life counts.” With that sense of ability and worth, Fletcher has made his life around youth engagement.
While not an advocate of alternative learning per se, the premise of Fletcher’s work -youth engagement – lies at the heart of the alternative and student-led learning movements. When I asked him his opinion of alternative schools like the Sudbury Valley model, Adam replied, “I think that even the most successful Sudbury Valley schools or alternative schools aren’t grounded in reality. They [the schools] remove children from their democratic reality” of public education.
Public education, Adam acknowledged, has many failings of its own. That said, “if you run away from the struggle, how are you helping?” He went on to add, though very gently I would say, “It seems pretty privileged to step away entirely and not do anything for the institutions that are for everybody”. Fletcher pointed out that there are close to 51 million students enrolled in public school in America (source). If we compare that with 5 million students in private schools and the 1.7 million kids in America who were home-schooled (as of 2007) (source), we can easily see what Fletcher is getting at. If we want to practice what we preach and bring meaningful education opportunities and empowerment to young people, perhaps we should go where the greatest number of young people are – in public schools.
One of Adam’s main contributions to the world of youth engagement has been the extensive body of literature that he’s published either on line or in book format. When I commented on this he modestly replied, “I have a little bit of fun and I love writing about youth.” Since 2001 with the beginning of The Freechild Project Fletcher has generated hundreds of articles like “25 Ways to Stop Tokenizing Youth” and “Examples of Meaningful Student Involvement”. From tool kits for educators to student resources on the origins of public school and the importance of youth involvement in community organizations, Fletcher has put over a decade into building a free, accessible database. Whether his work is within the school system or outside of it, it’s clear that Fletcher’s motivation is all for the same end – creating opportunities for young people. “I stay engaged with my work to create the kind of schools that are worth sending my kids to, consciously but realistically.”
For me, creating the kind of schools that I believe are worth sending my kids to seems like an almost insurmountable feat. A significant sticking point is the weight placed on testing and grade-based assessment. Adam’s response paints a wonderful picture of the importance of student involvement, and succinctly encompasses Adam’s message; “Let student’s voices stand on their own about evaluation and assessment”. The missing piece of so many alternative education movements is the voice of the young people themselves. (This argument came up over and over again at this year’s International Democratic Education Conference. For more of Adam’s perspective on this, see here.) Whether adults are advocating for stricter regulations and longer school days or for a relaxed curriculum and emotional intelligence classes, without the input of the people most affected – the students – all these changes have the commonality of top-down orders. To foster a sense of self-worth and self-understanding in young people is perhaps the most democratic focus that we could have for education.
Wanna know more about Adam’s work? Check out his new book, Ending Discrimination Against Young People.